Student Guide to Online Activism: How to Advocate & Engage
Whether you want to throw your support behind an existing cause or bring light to something new, learn how you can make a difference by advocating, campaigning, and engaging as a digital activist.
Last Updated: 08/14/2020
Student activism traditionally conjures images of young people marching the streets with handmade signs and shouting messages for a common cause. And while these types of protests are still a fixture of political participation and social movements, younger activists around the world are using a broader set of practices enabled by digital technology. For example, the #MeToo movement started as nothing new — the fight for gender equality has influenced social and political movements throughout the world for generations. But the use of social media to increase visibility and inspire change turned #MeToo into something different. What started as a grassroots effort quickly turned to a viral rallying cry for millions of women across the globe.
But turning a digital campaign viral is no easy feat; digital activism still requires the hard work and passion of traditional activism, and students want to know how they can make a real difference online. If you want to put your drive and dedication behind a cause without taking to the streets, keep reading to learn how you can make an impact through digital activism step by step.
Identify Your Cause
Have a cause you want to fight for? Aside from being able to locate plenty of online resources on topics you’re already passionate about, there are also many ways to use the internet to locate causes that may be new to you. If you already have a cause to support but have been silenced because of the closing of your campus, skip to Step 2 below. For those of you without a cause in mind, let’s take a look at some of the major categories of issues that are commonly supported by student activists today.
What Causes Need Student Support?
Diversity, Justice, & Inequality
With the vast amount of online tools for digital activism today, you can get involved or create just about any group or organization you can imagine. Some activists want to raise awareness around marginalized communities who are often overlooked or negatively affected by local, state, and national governmental policies. Organized groups and nonprofits today, such as the Human Rights Watch, are non-governmental organizations that report human rights violations and abuses on the local, state, national, and global scale. Depending on which aspects of human rights you’d like to fight for, you can find ways to battle domestic violence, human trafficking, sexual assault, and more.
Environmental, Basic Rights, & Privacy
Alternatively, activists may be fighting large battles for long-term issues such as global warming, internet privacy and neutrality, freedom of speech, and working toward criminal justice and prison reform.
Immigration, Peace, & Freedom
Some of the more recent active groups in the U.S. include those who advocate on behalf of immigrants, people of color, and low-income people. With recently bolstered rhetoric around the need for better border patrol in the U.S., as well as the media and political figures wrongfully accusing immigrant populations as a whole for an array of crimes, many activist organizations that focus on helping immigrants today have stepped up to help people at the U.S.-Mexico border. Immigrants around the country also need better access to resources and allies.
Racial Justice & Anti-Racism
With recent growth for movements like Black Lives Matter, there are many ways to get involved in racial justice activism and anti-racism efforts. Many of these groups today fight for more than what outsiders might see. The Black Lives Matter movement states that it “has always been more of a human rights movement” than civil rights alone. With this in mind, activists are fighting for fair treatment for people of all races across the justice system. The National Education Association writes that racial justice goes beyond an anti-racism agenda and extends to fighting for “the presence of deliberate systems” that support all humans, regardless of race, and strives to “achieve and sustain racial equity through proactive and preventive measures.”
Continuing the fight for gender equality today, many organizations advocate for women’s’ reproductive rights, equality for immigrant women, and equality in the workplace. These organizations are not only composed of or led by women, too, such as the Men Engage Alliance. A recent organization and movement of the same name, Time’s Up, works toward, “safe, fair and dignified work for all women.” This includes efforts to advocate for equal pay, paid sick leave, affordable childcare, and more.
There are also many opportunities to support the LGBTQIA+ community through digital activism. The Human Rights Campaign is the largest civil rights organization working for this community, striving for their equal rights as members of society in social, community, and employment settings. There are several prominent activists with active social media accounts that fight for LGBTQ equality. These accounts can serve as inspiration if you are thinking about getting into this type of work.
Establish Your Mission
Different types of digital activism and initiatives require you to make use of today’s mobile technologies to raise awareness and get more people on board with your efforts, especially when your campus is closed. Whatever cause you choose to support, it’ s important to establish a clear mission with manageable goals. From the outset, if your goals seem attainable, you are more likely to gain widespread support and improve your chances for beneficial outcomes. Let’s take a look at some of the main categories your cause’s mission could fall into.
Awareness & Advocacy
In today’s digital landscape, activists who want to raise awareness or advocate on behalf of certain causes need to find valuable and credible resources that they can distribute via online channels. Digital news sources today aren’t always reliable and may be controlled by outside entities with a vested interest in controlling the content of their stories. That means it’s important for activists to locate credible sites that strive to cover unreported or under-reported stories that relate to their particular efforts. Some of the more actionable things that you can do as a student activist to raise awareness on a regular basis is to use social media sharing buttons and create mailing lists. This way, your supporters can post your vetted stories to their personal networks, in turn spreading credible news to their followers.
Organization & Mobilization
Since information moves so quickly these days, including the spread of news stories through social media, digital activists need to be able to spring into action at a moment’s notice. You will need to have organizational tools in place, including supportive efforts from your constituents, when the time comes to organize and mobilize quickly. In the event that you are able to gather in a public space safely, you need to be able to distribute information to your supporters and fellow activists quickly in order to find an effective, visible, and safe location. This all takes planning and organization in advance.
Recently, the murder of an unarmed African-America jogger in Georgia showed the power of social media organization. Upon receiving new information and video footage of the tragic incident, the organizers on behalf of the deceased were able to act quickly and mobilize their constituents to make a serious impact on the flow of events in the case. Firstly, activists were able to quickly obtain new evidence as it became available thanks to their established contacts online. Secondly, even though it took months for law enforcement to take action and arrest the offending parties, social media organizers were able to get their supporters to make thousands of calls to the affiliated Georgia police station and demand justice, all of which was accomplished remotely. This is just one example of successful organization and mobilization done digitally.
Action & Reaction
As a student, you can participate in active and reactive practices remotely. You can take advantage of social media to link up with like-minded groups that may or may not be affiliated with your school. Many of these groups take the initiative to make public protests, start petitions, and take other types of action to support ongoing causes that battle public issues. Even remotely, you can take action against social, racial, economic, and other injustices. Taking advantage of social media and other digital resources can help you carry-out valuable work and make your collective voice be heard.
Many institutions today don’t like being scrutinized or shamed for their exclusionary or harmful institutional practices, including colleges and universities. College students have been successful in calling attention to unjust practices at their institutions and have made progress because of their organized active efforts. This type of work directly benefits your immediate community and helps level the playing field for all of your fellow students who are trying to get an education.
The popularization of Nationwide marches for women’s rights in the United States clearly demonstrates how an organized response can turn heads and even make history. With a newly elected administration’s increasingly aggressive plans to restrict a woman’s governance over her own body, activists from all walks of life, including the average civilian, sprang into action to protest the oppression of women on January 21, 2017. This effort could not have been orchestrated so efficiently and quickly without the use of digital coordinating and planning. The women’s march in 2017 was one of the largest protests in American history with approximately 4.2 million protesters in over 600 cities.
Activate Your Cause – Tools & Platforms
The next step to launching your digital campaign starts with utilizing online tools to get your cause noticed. As a student interested in pursuing work as a digital activist, there are several essential tools and platforms that can make your voice heard. In addition to helping your efforts gain momentum by getting others involved on-the-ground, some tools allow you to reach out directly to governing bodies who can directly affect changes in our society from the top down.
Social Media Networks
Originally designed to connect college students on campuses around the United States, Facebook has quickly become a worldwide social network with a variety of useful features for digital activism. For instance, Facebook allows users to create both publicly visible and private groups that help activists and their supporters share information and coordinate their efforts. Facebook groups also help causes and organizations find new supporters and pool their resources when needed.
For many, Instagram has become one of the go-to resources for news. The app allows user to quickly and easily share visual-impactful content, making it an extremely accessible tool for activists. Digital activists can create profiles for supporters to follow and quickly disseminate news via the main feed or direct messaging. The nature of the platform has led digital activists to post information in forms that closely resemble hardcopy fliers from the pre-internet age, giving it a slightly more relatable or personal touch than other platforms. Instagram also allows users to post and livestream videos. Activists have used this as a way to document their work, give visual proof of their success and turnout at events, and more.
This mobile-based social media app allows users to post photos, videos, and text that are only available to their followers for a limited time. Digital activists have used Snapchat to create flyers using the program’s geofilters and custom designs for their posts. Additionally, Snapchat allows users to create video “stories” that geotag the user and allows other users inside a geofence to contribute posts to the story. The geofence works well for activists at events, conferences, protests, and demonstrations.
One of the primary sources for news for many around the globe, Twitter serves as a real-time information hub for activists and their supporters. Although it has many of the same features as Facebook’s newsfeed, Twitter was one of the first social media sites to connect publicly visible posts using the “hashtag” feature. For example, if a user makes a post and includes the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, the post will be included in a publicly visible list or feed of all the posts that include that same tag. Activists can use hashtag and retweets, or the re-posting of another’s post, to help disseminate information, gain followers, locate like-minded activists working in similar arenas, and quickly organize protests, boycotts, and the like.
Many activists today choose to utilize YouTube in order to get their message out to the masses, especially for those who wish to make regularly occurring posts, share video news stories, or broadcast live feeds from events. Some groups and organizations treat YouTube as a news channel. YouTube serves as an excellent way to involve your supporters remotely, especially through remote participation in livestreams. Some activists also use the comments section in YouTube posts to discuss issues with viewers and locate additional supporters. YouTube offers the familiar “follow” feature, which allows users to receive notifications when you post new content.
Online petitions offer quick and free ways for people to support causes of their choosing. Your goals, the nature of the cause, and the people involved can drastically influence the effectiveness of online petitions. Online petitions can raise awareness and get people talking to you, their friends, and their online networks about your efforts and the importance of the issues you raise. It’s even possible for online petitions to influence policy makers and others in position of power to make positive changes that support your work.
One of the primary go-to online resources for these types of petitions is Change.org. This site makes it easy for others to find and support your efforts and it has a good track record of victories. Recently, a petition with over 80,000 online supporters on the site helped a UPS employee regain their job after being wrongfully fired over voicing an employee safety concern.
Virtual Town Hall Meetings
Virtual town halls have proven to be a successful way to engage activists’ audiences from a distance. These are based on the idea of a traditional, in-person town hall meeting with plenty of interaction among participants. You can choose to do a “live” town hall meeting, during which you can take questions from viewers as they come in via phone or online comments in real-time.
Alternatively, in order to help foster a more inclusive environment and accommodate those who can’t attend a “live” session at a given time, you can hold the meeting, or keep the online discussion open, over the span of one or two weeks. While it may seem like a slower approach than what traditional or real-time town halls can offer, spreading the meeting out over weeks allows users and supporters to generate thoughtful questions, consider others’ opinions, and gives you time to construct good responses. Organizations of all types have taken advantage of virtual town halls, from academic organizations and conferences to groups fighting for racial and social justice.
Learn the Tricks of the Trade
You’ve identified your cause, established your mission, and activated your digital tools, now it’s time to learn the tricks of the trade. These tips might seem simple, but they can make the difference between a successful and unsuccessful campaign. Let’s take a look.
When you use hashtags in your social media posts, your content is then automatically categorized for your audience. Provided the information you share is publicly visible (check your privacy settings), just about anyone using that platform can see your posts, making it easy for like-minded people to connect.
Link to Your Official Site
If you have an official website, be sure to include it in the bio or website section of your profile on every social media account that’s associated with your work. If you don’t have a dedicated site outside of social media platforms, it may be a good opportunity to link a trusted ally’s site who participates in similar types of digital activism or supports the same causes.
While this is certainly not a strategy fit for every organization or type of online branding, emoticons can make your content more personable for online readers. Even if your content tends to be on the serious side, emoticons such as the red flashing lights, alarm bells, lightning bolts, and the like can draw attention to important messages or captions when you post.
Tell a Good Story
When possible, use a story, personal anecdote, or the compelling stories of others to engage your readers. As one of the time-tested modes of human interaction, a good story holds great power in supporting your message no matter the medium.
Humanize Your Content
Part of the reason that good storytelling is so effective in social media content is because it makes content more relatable. We’ve all seen posts from social media accounts that are stiff, bland, and lacking any kind of engaging spirit. To ensure your digital activism carries some weight and resonates with people, show and tell them exactly how it makes you feel, how others feel about it, and why it matters. That makes your content “more human,” honest, real, and more likely to get others on board with your efforts.
Each social media platform has its own insights tool that reveals information about your followers, their level of engagement with your posts, and more. While this is not a totally necessary step to take as a digital activist, analytics can be extremely useful when trying to grow your audience. The larger your audience, the further your message can reach.
Although you may be using social media platforms, email lists, and more to deliver text-based messages, remember that your design, layout, and photos are also a part of that message. Do your best to use high-quality images, especially on image-focused outlets like Instagram. Secondly, don’t overlook the power of a clean, easily readable, and visually engaging email blast. Your followers will support you for your cause and message, but they will continue to come back and engage with your posts if you offer them visually pleasing content. They are also more likely to share your materials, and thus your messages, with their friends and followers they look good.
Email Lists Still Work
HubStop reported in 2019 that more than 50% of their surveyed population checks their email more than ten times a day. The majority of their respondents also said that email is their favorite way to engage with a brand of some kind. While you are not necessarily pushing a physical “brand” in the traditional sense, you are the face of something–albeit a cause, organization, targeted effort, etc. Be sure to collect email addresses from your followers, ask them to enter it on your website, and don’t be afraid to send email updates on the regular.
Diversify Your Content for Each Platform
Let’s say you’re operating the Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube account for your organization. You’ll want to engage your supporters in different ways on each channel. Otherwise, why would someone follow you on more than one platform at a time? Get creative.
Share the Work of Other Activists
Whether you’re part of a large or small activist group, it’s always a good idea to share the efforts of other groups that are working toward similar goals. It’s beneficial for both groups, as supporters may choose to help one another, and ultimately moves you closer to achieving your goals.
Stand Up to Trolls
When you’re posting content about a cause you’re passionate about, especially if it’s controversial, you can expect to get some backlash from time to time. However, there is a more malicious type of internet opponent digital activists should be aware of. A troll is someone who makes intentional inflammatory, rude, or upsetting statements online to elicit a strong emotional response in people or to steer a conversation off topic. Most trolls do this for their own amusement, while others have specific agendas. Whatever the case may be, knowing how to handle them is essential to a successful campaign. Here are the most important things to keep in mind.
With the strong possibility of being trolled online, it’s best to know in advance how you plan to handle it. Some administrators of pages choose to ignore them entirely. Others engage them in strategic ways. Assuming that the troll is, in fact, a real human and not some kind of bot that’s auto-generating comments on your posts, you will likely get a response if you engage them.
A troll’s main goal is to upset you and bring out the worst in you and your social media followers. Should you choose to engage them, it’s best to respond calmly. If you show no signs of being worked up and address them with a non-aggressive tone, you will remain one step ahead of them. Don’t delete their posts, this can escalate their bad behavior. Report them if their posts break the rules and guidelines of the platform, however.
It’s also extremely advantageous to stay positive in your responses. One of the ways to do that is to respond with any credible sources and facts that may support your cause, a particular post, or disprove a troll’s comment. This can be a rabbit hole, because they may come back at you with alternative sources. At this point, it may be best to walk away. Many trolls, however, will not be able to provide any credible support for their arguments.
Measure your Success
As with any worthwhile effort, it can be helpful for you and those involved to acknowledge the successes of your work. From big to small, your success and progress matters, boosts morale, inspires others to support you, and builds awareness of your work. How do we measure success in the digital age? Here are some actionable ways to measure the effectiveness of your work.
Growth in Followers
As basic as this sounds, a significant growth in your followers on your social media platforms can be a good sign that your message and goals resonate with people. This progress is twofold in that the more followers you get, the more people who see your message and the further your social media reach will be.
Action and Movement
Did your organization or group make some kind of progress? Meta-Activism.com offers a metric for activists to assess their campaign’s performances based on their intentions and variables of outcomes. One political science expert argues that movements can be considered a success by three measures. First, they are a success if they turn into, at the very least, a coming together or some kind of mobilization as a unit. Secondly, your efforts may be successful if you move from mobilization to actions, such as engaging in dissent or insurgency, depending on your goals and strategies. Thirdly, of course, if there’s at least one explicit goal from the outset that was accomplished, then you’ve got a success story.
How do you feel about it?
Some experts argue that, even with massive amounts of financial backing and extensive resources, we don’t fully achieve everything we’ve set out to do. One expert suggests looking to others who have challenged major figures or issues in the U.S., such as Google, who didn’t quite meet their goals. It’s best to celebrate and acknowledge the small wins and realize that positive change does not happen overnight.
Resources for Student Activists
American Civil Liberties Union: This nonprofit organization fights for all individuals in the U.S. to receive individual rights and liberties that are guaranteed by law and the Constitution. This link will connect you with racial justice resources and current issues in that area.
BeaconLive.com: This article considers some tips for creating and operating a successful town hall meeting.
The Civil Rights Project: This a research think tank dedicated to addressing issues of racial justice. You can find the latest research, news, and legal developments here.
The Manifest: The site offers a guide for how to track and understand social media analytics.
Meta-Activism.org: Among many resources available through this site, you can find a digital activism campaign scorecard to measure the effectiveness of your efforts.
Mobilizing Ideas: The Mobilizing Ideas blog offers many essays and activist information for students interested in racial and social justice.
National Sexual Violence Resource Center: The organization offers valuable resources for survivors and their families, as well as information for activists and others who wish to support their efforts. This is a directory of organizations who are dedicated to supporting survivors and protecting women and others against violence.
The Petition Site: Experts here can help you get started with an online petition, promote it, and even get news coverage.
Racial Equality Resource Guide: Explore an extensive list of organizations who are currently working for racial equality, including grassroots organizations, national advocacy groups, and more with this guide.
StartGuide.org: Here you will find an extensive list with links to active civil rights groups, criminal justice groups, and more.
Youth Activist Toolkit: Provided by the Advocates for Youth, this toolkit provides aspiring young activists with step-by-step guides to support their efforts.